With hospitalization rates from COVID-19 dropping as well as active cases, Alberta has moved to eliminate the provincial mandatory work-from-home order and public masking requirements except in high-risk settings.
Effective March 1, the province begins its Step Two of dropping public health measures, on its road back to ‘normal’, which also includes the end of limits on social gatherings, capacity limits for large venues and restrictions on interactive activities, liquor service and operating hours will be lifted.
Annie Dormuth, Provincial Director for British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said the move by the Alberta government is much anticipated and awaited news for the province’s small business community, especially those in the hospitality industry.
“We were hoping to see of course the lifting of these restrictions perhaps a little bit sooner, but definitely this day has been on the calendar for many businesses in the hospitality industry,” said Dormuth.
“This has consistently been one of the hardest hit industries throughout this entire pandemic and hopefully all of these restrictions are now behind us. Now it’s really up to the Alberta government as well to really come behind these businesses that are now being able to operate without restrictions and really start engaging on a messaging of consumer confidence and encouraging people to once again go out and return to these activities. Government messaging from across Canada has been basically deemed unsafe to do for nearly two years now and that’s really what we’re going to be looking for the Alberta government to really do as we get past March 1 and on to economic recovery.”
Dormuth said surveys show that 70 to 80 per cent of small business owners in Alberta support the removing of all COVID restrictions but some small businesses may choose to keep some of the protocols in place.
The lifting of the mandatory work-from-home order will also be good news for restaurants, bars and retailers in the downtown cores of the major Alberta cities such as Calgary and Edmonton.
“We continually heard from downtown business associations and groups that this is definitely a damaging public health order to our critical downtown core businesses,” said Dormuth.
Michelle Wasylyshen, National Spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada, said retailers are all about offering the best customer experience.
“And so we look forward to a time when all COVID requirements are removed and customers and staff can interact as they did previously. We’ve heard from some retailers in provinces that are unwinding mandatory public health requirements, that their stores may choose to keep some safety protocols in place for the time being, including masking, as a means of continuing to provide added protection to their associates and customers,” she said.
“Each store is different and may have quite specific client needs or proximity of customers and associates – think for example of the case of a pharmacy counter, where vulnerable populations and close interactions, are the norm. After more than two years of responding to rapidly changing measures across the country, retailers are very experienced at implementing and adapting their stores to best address their unique operational requirements.”
Michael Kehoe, broker/owner of Fairfield Commercial Real Estate in Calgary, said the lifting of the provincial government mask requirement in Alberta is welcome news for the food service industry.
“Bars and restaurants are returning to a pre-COVID-19 sense of normalcy that this is the most welcome and final component of moving through a so-called ‘endemic’ era,” he said. “This is a natural progression that follows the lifting of such measures in most other jurisdictions. Expressive eyes have been an effective communicative mechanism while masked up over the past two years. Now the smile is back and the handshake hiatus is over. Welcome news as we move into springtime with smiling faces while visiting our favourite pubs and dining establishments.”
Retail expert Bruce Winder said the confirmation of Alberta eliminating mask mandates and the anticipated similar decisions soon from other provinces will have both positive and negative impacts to retail, restaurants and other locations.
“From a positive perspective, consumers who have been against mask mandates will begin to frequent these establishments now that they can shop or dine without this burden. From a negative perspective, some consumers who have been in step with mask mandates may reduce in-person shopping or dining for fear of catching COVID-19 from unmasked customers,” said Winder, author of RETAIL Before, During & After COVID-19 and President of Bruce Winder Retail.
“I think that many consumers will continue to wear masks in these settings after mask mandates are eliminated as a precaution. At least for the next several months. Wearing masks had become a way of life in some Asian countries long before the pandemic existed, and we will probably see similar behaviour in Canada.
“We may also see a polarization of different retailers and restaurants into two groups. Those who continue to mandate masks within their locations and those that do not. If so, there will be much legal discussion as it relates to this divide and what rights consumers possess to shop or dine indoors as they wish. Let’s hope that the net effect of such dynamics leads to improved traffic and sales for merchants so they can get back to some new form of normal as soon as possible.”
George Minakakis, Principal of Inception Retail Group Inc. and author of The New Bricks & Mortar Future Proofing Retail, said it will be nice to see human faces again and no one likes wearing a mask over their face.
“We all want to be back with friends, laughing again with comfort. However these have been times of a medical health emergency. One has to wonder, are we rushing things and opening ourselves up to major outbreaks again? When the pandemic started the stats showed that we were weak in hospital beds and not enough healthcare workers. Might we push that envelope again? How does that help business operators that deal with the public face to face?,” he said.
“Many business operators are already concerned. On one hand they need the revenue. But they are very aware that not all consumers will be comfortable in crowded places, especially without masks. Not everyone has had a vaccine and not everyone feels immortal. Not even business owners and their employees. What about consumers and workers who need to keep masks on because of underlying health issues? Will they be walking around anxiously afraid of being harassed? Retailers, restaurateurs and other consumer facing businesses have an urgent hurdle to overcome and that is to create a safe and risk-free experience for all. Opening for business and trying to get back to some normal is important.
“We need to be careful because groups calling for an end to restrictions and politicians ending them doesn’t stop the virus from spreading or the birth of new variants. If we have further outbreaks, you won’t have to worry about restrictions, consumers have already been conditioned to safeguard themselves and that will mean less traffic. Therefore, the onus is on all business operators to create the right healthy environments. So all will feel welcomed and safe.”
In a statement, Restaurants Canada said: “Health and safety are mission critical to restaurants — this is just as true now as it was before the COVID-19 crisis. Since the start of the pandemic, restaurants have quickly and effectively adapted to evolving public health guidance so that they can continue to serve their communities while ensuring the health and safety of staff and customers. With mask mandates for foodservice and hospitality businesses no longer in effect in Alberta, our members will continue to make decisions based on local public health guidance, as well as their unique operational circumstances. Restaurants Canada encourages Albertans to continue supporting their local restaurants on their road to recovery.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said cases of COVID and hospitalizations have continued to drop over the last three weeks as the province started lifting restrictions.
“This promising trend puts Alberta in a position to safely remove the majority of remaining public health measures. This is a good day for Albertans as we get another step closer to getting back to normal,” he said.
The City of Calgary has also announced it is ending its face covering bylaw requirement for indoor masking.
“We are cautiously optimistic that we are entering a new stage of the pandemic,” said Chief Susan Henry of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency.
“Some of us will welcome the lifting of restrictions while others will prefer to continue wearing face coverings and following other precautions. We must be kind and compassionate toward one another, respect those personal choices and make space for everyone to move at the speed they feel comfortable with.”